Essay on Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead

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Changing Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead  

    Everyone remembers the nasty villains that terrorize the happy people in fairy tales. Indeed, many of these fairy tales are defined by their clearly defined good and bad archetypes, using clichéd physical stereotypes. What is noteworthy is that these fairy tales are predominately either old themselves or based on stories of antiquity. Modern stories and epics do not offer these clear definitions; they force the reader to continually redefine the definitions of morality to the hero that is not fully good and the villain that is not so despicable. From Dante’s Inferno, through the winding mental visions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spiraling through the labyrinth in Kafka’s The Trial, and culminating in Joyce’s abstract realization of morality in “The Dead,” authors grapple with this development. In the literary progression to the modern world, the increasing abstraction of evil from its classic archetype to a foreign, supernatural entity without bounds or cure is strongly suggestive of the pugnacious assault on individualism in the face of literature’s dualistic, thematically oligopolistic heritage.

In analyzing this gradient of morality, it is useful first to examine a work from early literature whose strong purity of morality is unwavering; for the purposes of this discussion, Dante’s Inferno provides this model. It is fairly straightforward to discover Dante’s dualistic construction of morality in his winding caverns of Hell; each stern, finite circle of Hell is associated with a clear sin that is both definable and directly punishable. As Dante moves downwards in this moral machination, he notes that

Like lies with like in every heresy
And the monuments are fired, some more, some less;
To each depravity its own degree. (9.127-9)

There is no question as to the goodness or wickedness of each character in this fiendish Hell; there is also no feeling of pity because it is understood that each punishment is the contrapasso for a recognized, unilateral sin. The only question in Dante’s world is the very sin itself – for in this definition both the punishment and the classification of the sinner are deducible, and this duality makes every sinner bad, for they all share a common bond of evilness.

This duality that seeps into every crevice of Hell’s rocky surface is important for two reasons; first, sinners that have committed similar sins are grouped together en masse; second, the punishment for sin is a mirror image of the sin itself, creating a dual duality that makes Dante’s morality all the more poignant. This “perfect mirror” of morality compels each sinner to look at his actions for his sin (Ruskin 22); in essence, each sinner already knows his punishment because he has seen that which he has done. Uncertainty of justice is of little relevance to Dante’s world, for morality is well defined in a black and white world with no gray. This sharp cataloguing is being reflected identically to all mankind; essentially, morality exists because a common image is reflected and radiated by all members of the society.

As every glimmer of sunshine reflected on a pool has a source, so does Dante’s morality. In the Renaissance definition of sin, God and religious dogma are of absolute necessity. This chain of morality originates from God, reflects on every member of society, and then forces the individual to reflect on his actions and therefore draw his eyes to God. The notion of a personal morality, as Virgil’s Dido would have wished, is both derided and mocked. Morality is “always the ruling and Divine power […] and the rest of the man is to it only as an instrument which it sounds” (Ruskin 22). Thus in the medieval and classical sense, man in the great symphony of morality is only the instrument, unwittingly being played and assigned parts with no control over timbre or tone. The roles of the musician and conductor are relegated to outside powers that guide man on his journey. He is unable to act for himself, swirling around in the madness of reality without any conception of his own moral consciousness, instead following the orders and dictates of others, furthering the ends of a dualistic oligopoly by blaring blindly societal and religious morality with no thought to his personal morality.

In summation, in the earliest examples of literature, morality is perceived as a predefined, written symphony in which each individual is only a performer. The individual receives his part from God and religion and, in turn, radiates the song outward to the rest of society, making morality both a religious and a societal affair where the individual only forwards the goals of society and religion.
This pure sense of morality is shattered more completely on the hard concrete of the quasi-modern age in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Through the layered responses to changing and chaotic situations, the characters in Hamlet attempt to find a sense of morality in a world where they do not even know their friends. Hamlet is forced into the peculiar position of committing an amoral deed – killing his stepfather – for a questionable moral end, revenging his father’s cruel death by the vivid commands of his shadowy ghost. Hamlet the character acts as an interesting and analytically useful bridge between the pure social and religious morality of Dante and the intensely personal morality of Kafka.

As is often the case in bridge or gradient works of literature, Hamlet defies definition because of his shifting archetypes, thereby creating his own archetype for which he is studied and revered by critics. As Hamlet himself states through Shakespeare,

For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.4.172-7)

Plagued by his dual, shifting role as a minister of God’s morality and a scourge of this classical idealism, Hamlet experiences a psychological war between himself and society. Here the first progression to the modern age is evident; Hamlet is not in step with the song that society is playing, forcing Hamlet to play along without a score. This isolation, based on his placid servitude to absolute orders and decrees, makes him appear mad to onlookers. Hamlet, though referenced by Shakespeare as the hero of the play, cannot be seen on an entirely rosy bed of flowers. He has committed murder, no matter the reasons, and he even writhingly wishes Claudius a “more horrid hent” than mere revenge will allow (Shakespeare 3.3.88). While Hamlet is conniving new heinous plots at the instruction of the audacious apparition, Claudius is crying out for “all [to] be well” among “angels” and for a heart as “soft as sinews of the new-born babe” (Shakespeare 3.3.69-72). The previously evil king thus jilts this notion - he is, at heart, seeking reconciliation and has a dream for a better Denmark. Despite his obvious selfish interests in the kingship, it cannot be overlooked that he maintains a sense of grief and woe for his actions, yet Hamlet sees nothing wrong in his lumbering lust for death.

The Avon Bard’s purpose for this role reversal and ambiguity is evident. As critic Cruttwell notes, Hamlet’s role is similar to that of a soldier, who has “done things [… that he] would rather not have done; but he believes it to be a just war” (237). In the purest sense, therefore, Hamlet has been forced to alter his definitions of evil and morality in order to function in a changing situation. Faced with moral multiplicities that fail to mesh with his dire conditions, Hamlet searches out his own meaning and substance to his personal morality.

Hamlet’s world, at least when compared to Dante’s, was perhaps more secular but still starkly theological, classified by “total black or white, damned or saved” (Cruttwell 236). What Shakespeare does within the context of his play is establish a world where Hamlet is a soldier in a brutal war between conflicting factions of morality, struggling for dominance over his psyche. Shakespeare contextualizes this soldier motif with the Fortinbras affair and perhaps more delicately with

The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him. (5.2.399-401)

As Hamlet sounds his fate and his beliefs in the harsh winds of Denmark, noted authority Fred Bowers sees Hamlet as “an instrument in the hands of God […] that seizes on his heart” (212). This religious overtone brings the otherwise modernistically wayward Hamlet back into touch with the classical morality of Dante, where the relationship of man as an instrument of God was previously discussed. Where Dante was impressed by the “tender, sweet […] angel’s voice, a music of its own,” Shakespeare is much more concerned with painting a dramatic world where Hamlet does not know if he is playing or is being played (Dante 2.56-7). Unsure of his place in the scheme of morality, Hamlet as a character is forced to act internally, playing his own tune while attempting to get back into step with God’s greater moral composition. Thus while Hamlet is not a complete modern archetype – he still turns to religion and society for moral guidance – the crucial relationship between these forces is severed, forcing man to guide himself on his moral journey, creating gray areas of evil and an even more foreboding sense of complete loss of control.

Chaos permeates every discussion of contemporary morality. It is in the modern realm where morality is contained completely within the context of the individual’s experience, and all sources of inspiration and definition are lost, obscured, or unavailable. Man is alone in the universe, and faced with this predicament, a passionate inner struggle shapes countless definitions of evil and morality. Evil is unknown because concrete morality is also unknown; chaos begets chaos and modern man loses. A brilliant microcosm of the crux of modern morality is Franz Kafka’s The Trial. K. asks maddeningly where “was the Judge whom he had never seen […] where was the high Court, to which he had never penetrated?” (Kafka 228). Arrested and convicted of a crime, the definition of which he does not know, he is held captive by a system of justice to whose borders and laws he is foreign; they are never offered to him, his pleas go unnoticed. K. then is the most quintessential modern literary figure – he is alone, without a friend, and, more to the point, without a clear enemy. Evil seeps into everything because K. does not know what alleged crime he has committed and as such knows nothing of society’s morals. The nightmarish, phantasmagoric power of the Court dominates K.’s mind throughout the novel, but no one – not even the reader – is enlightened as to the true nature of the Court or K.’s offenses. Morality, it seems, has vanished.

This is not to say that Kafka’s world is unrealistic or even fantastic; it is frightening and stupefying because of this very reality that makes morality so close, yet so far. K., as the modern archetype, is unable to come to reasonable terms with his oppressor because the oppressor is omniscient and omnipresent. Evil pervades everything, and evil is nothing. As the painter notes on the Court’s judicial records, “they can be believed, but they cannot be proved,” begging K. to reply sharply, “mere legends cannot alter my opinion” (Kafka 154). These two statements provide the foundation for a practical exploration of morality in the modern sense.

The painter’s nonsensical assertion that acquittals can be believed but not proven accentuates the loss of clear definition in the contemporary world. Because absolute good and evil can no longer be proven on logical terms, all that is left for man apparently is hope or belief in a benevolent outcome. Paradoxically, however, K. does not turn towards God or society for help – he turns inwards, looking into himself to come to terms with his charges and a way out of his situation. When K. fires his indolent lawyer, he only makes this point more vivid. K.’s denouncement of “mere legends” forcefully isolates K. from everything – K. is, despite Donne’s dissertation, an island, disjointed from reality because of its constant morphing. Keith Fort notes brilliantly that “every time a modern author puts pen to paper he must redefine his reality” (199). For Kafka, this reality is internal and individualistic; for Dante, it is a religious reality; Shakespeare falls somewhere in between these.

Reality, and by extension morality, is then determinant on relationships. Feedback and responses from outside entities provides visceral methods for analyzing and defining reality. Dante shows that the “essence of the thing is determined by its relation to God” (Fort 198). Shakespeare establishes relationships between Hamlet and society and family. Kafka establishes no relationships with anything outside the self – K. then is a summation of characters, all struggling for dominance of his personal definition of morality. Because this morality can be defined by so many things and is faced with a masked evil, the world is chaotic and unpredictable. Introspective reflection is forced by the lack of an external guiding force of God or society; the individual human is now both the law and moral-maker.

Continuing with the prior musical manifestations of morality, in the modern age the individual is both the conductor and musician; more importantly, he is also the composer of a decidedly atonal piece of music. He has nothing to guide him but himself, and as such appears less structured and organized. Compared to Dante’s classification of sin and evil, this seems self-evident. What is then so powerful and alluring about the modern age’s morality? For the answer, one final works needs to be considered.

Within the construct of Joyce’s “The Dead,” the sheer ambiguity of modern morality is wholly visible. As Gabriel searches in the “partial darkness” for the horrible “region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” he is lost, without guide, and he no longer even recognizes himself or his wife (Joyce 223). Gabriel is, for lack of a more precise definition, irreparably isolated from everything and everyone that he has ever claimed to know. Joyce asserts that there is no sense of God or society in this “lonely churchyard” full of “crooked crosses and headstones” where both the “living and the dead” congeal and mesh (223-4). Even with Kafka there was at least some semblance of a societal role: K. could turn to the painter and his laughable lawyer; Gabriel has literally no one to whom he can turn. He is psychologically and morally dead in a bereft, deceased, and molding world.

Morality, therefore, is absent; it has faded away with each changing definition of the modern world. As each literary progression carries with it a new, more chaotic and listless sense of reality, morality becomes more and more contorted and masked. There is no great and sweeping composition of morality within the confines of the contemporary world; there is not even a relic of atonality – the music is dead.

Morality then is no longer even personal; it ceases to even exist. The breadth of this development is astounding; Dante’s world was completely enraptured and defined by an oligopolistic morality, but Joyce’s decidedly modern perspective lacks all classical hues of absolute evil in concept and actualization. Good, then, is also absent. This literary progression is, as most things are in the final analysis of literature, beautifully shown by Shakespeare when he writes in Hamlet:

And they commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables – meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. (1.5.102-8)

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: Mentor, 1982.

Bowers, Fredson. “Hamlet As Minister and Scourge.” PMLA 70 (1955): 740-9. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. 209-12.

Cruttwell, Patrick. “The Morality of Hamlet – ‘Sweet Prince’ or ‘Arrant Knave’?” Hamlet. New York: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1963. 110-28. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984. 234-7.

Fort, Keith. “The Function of Style in Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’.” Sewanee Review 72 (1964): 643-51. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard and Paula Kepos. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1988. 198-200.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Robert Scholes. New York, Penguin/Viking, 1996.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1992.

Ruskin, John. “Grotesque Renaissance.” The Stones of Venice: The Fall. 1853. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979. 112-65. Rpt. in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1989. 21-2.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. New York: Penguin, 1996.


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"Essay on Morality in Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, The Trial, and Joyce’s The Dead." 30 Nov 2015

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